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Solar Panels in Space: Is It Possible?

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By putting solar panels in space, the sun will always shine anywhere on Earth. California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has obtained a significant investment to support a sci-fi-like project. 

Caltech’s Harry Atwater told Ars Technica over Zoom that this is a more advanced idea, even the space program itself. Quoting Asimov and Clarke, Atwater created an image of glossy solar panels floating in space on a large metal truss. These solar panels are all connected to hardware that converts the electricity to a form suitable to shine back down to Earth. 

Long Gestation Period

In August, Caltech declared that one of its Board of Trustees had given over $100 million to promote the advancement of space-based power. The timing is somewhat peculiar because the donor, Donald Bren, started the process over a decade ago. At that time, Bren had presented his idea to the university administration and began choosing faculty members to participate in the project. 

“At first, I was in doubt because this is an idea that’s been studied several times,” Atwater said. 

Atwater thought innovative approaches to putting solar panels in space could become a reality. He even formed a spin-off company responsible for ultralight photovoltaic hardware. Later on, Caltech researchers with relevant expertise joined him. Ali Hajimiri has done research on power conversion hardware, while Sergio Pelligrino led the development of lightweight deployable space structures. 

The collaborative expertise has been essential in developing a design that represents a significant change in ideas. According to Atwater, the critical parameter in space is not efficiency but specific power, the power per unit mass. Specifically, Atwater and his team were more concerned about watts per kilogram. 

Beaming Light

Now, how do the solar panels in space work? Most photovoltaic systems in outer space use highly efficient cells containing three light-harvesting layers. Each layer has different wavelengths of light. However, the existing design of the solar panels uses a single layer of photovoltaic material, which allows a more significant efficiency per unit of mass.

Then, the absence of efficiency per unit area is offset by spreading the photovoltaics to a large extent. Atwater described this as “thinner than the thinnest plastic bag ever”. The flexible membrane is fixed using a tensegrity structure. This relatively tiny rigid structure is secured in a proper configuration by tension. 

The space-based solar project focuses on building small, self-contained units called tiles. The individual tiles will be made into a larger tensegrity structure, with a current target of about 60 meters square. 

“Plants” Floating In Space

Atwater said that an individual structure would not provide much power so that a subsequent power plant will require several forms flying in formation. The entire system is meant to be situated in geostationary orbit so that it can remain above a single receiving station while still providing 24/7 sunlight. 

Atwater also told Ars that the proposal would make the ground receiving station almost similar to a large utility-scale solar farm. It will comprise an extensive array of rectennas to convert the microwaves sent down from space into usable power.

Way Forward

Twelve years ago, a group of people established a company with an approach to space-based power identical to the one Atwater said would not work. So, the challenging project of Caltech may perform an important function.

However, Atwater said the project aims to produce the foundational technology for a cost-effective and scalable space solar power. The target made the project successful, generating a lot of intellectual property and space-based testing from  2022 to 2023. Atwater and his team aim to find more commercial partners for the actual deployment of solar panels in space. 

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Technology

Why Wikipedia No Longer Accepts Cryptocurrency Donations

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screenshot of wikimedia foundation

On Sunday, May 1, Wikipedia Foundation announced that it wouldn’t be accepting any more cryptocurrency donations. After a three-month deliberation and a request from the Wiki community, the Foundation, which owns and operates Wikipedia, made the final decision. Wikipedia no longer accepts cryptocurrency donations.

In the update, the decision to stop accepting crypto donations was based on the recent feedback gathered from its volunteers and donor communities. The Foundation began taking crypto in 2014 after much prodding from the same communities.

In the announcement, the Foundation also stated that it would be closing its account with Bitpay. This is the crypto payment service that it used to accept donations. 

Crypto Skepticism

Wikipedia editor Molly White tweeted her delight at the decision. She said, “I’m really proud of my community for taking a principled stand.” The crypto skeptic added, “It can be difficult when there’s money on the line,” saying that this is a concern commonly seen in the crypto space. She considers the decision refreshing and that both the community and Foundation see it the same way.

White also operates Web3 is Going Great, a website that tracks online scams and hacks in the cryptocurrency world. She was the first to report Wikipedia’s announcement about its decision to no longer accept these donations. 

As mentioned earlier, the non-profit organization began accepting crypto in 2014. They openly received donations in the form of popular cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Dogecoin, Litecoin, Ethereum, and USDC, among many others. 

At that time, Bitcoin was priced at $300 for a single coin nearing the end of the year. However, in a matter of years, its value skyrocketed. This has placed it in the public eye and has become famous over the years. Its price saw a lot of ups and downs, which also increased its volatility.

The article in Web3 is Going Great says that cryptocurrencies only accounted for a small percentage of the organization’s overall donations last year. This may be the main reason that Wikipedia no longer accepts cryptocurrency. To sum it up, only 0.08% of its revenue, or a little over $130,000 worth of crypto, was the number of donations it received in the last fiscal year.

The Formal Request

You can find the proposal and the crypto critics’ case concerning this on the Wikipedia discussion page. Most of these requests from critics argued that the non-profit organization should no longer accept crypto. It’s because of environmental issues resulting in their creation. One of the most popular arguments backing the decision is that Wikipedia can be seen as legitimizing and outwardly promoting a system that can be considered predatory.

White also added that they felt a “strong push from crypto advocates to brigade the discussion”. She finds it ironic that the crypto ethos involves self-governance and individual agencies. In contrast, members of the crypto community who aren’t part of the Wikipedia community try to force the subject on them. She wants to remind these people to remember that listening to community feedback is a part of self-governance. Even if there is no profit or good PR to be received.

Not Closing Doors

On the other hand, the Wikipedia Foundation, which supports the online encyclopedia, admitted to continuing to monitor the situation. It is possible that the organization will keep its doors open for accepting cryptocurrency donations anew. 

Although currently, crypto believers are rapidly increasing in numbers, there is still a significant fraction of non-believers or skeptics. But for now, these unbelievers and doubters and much of the Wiki community remain victorious.

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Technology

Hibernation in Space: Possible or Purely Fiction?

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astronaut in an orange suit

Space hibernation – it’s an idea many creative minds have pondered for a long time. In fact, some science fiction movies have shown sleeping humans going for a ride in space. The theory is this: when people are put into sleeping chambers, they can survive the long travel to a different land. In movies, actors would wake up on another planet where humans can live on.

But is it really possible? As interesting as the theory sounds, fiction is far from reality.

For one, sending humans to space is still considered a logistical nightmare. For that alone, space hibernation can be a thing of fiction. And because of new research, it is likely that it will remain that way.

Why space hibernation?

Sending astronauts to space is one of the human race’s most outstanding achievements. Working around the lack of gravity in space has been a grueling task for researchers. Apart from daily needs such as food, astronauts’ physical and mental well-being in space is hard to maintain. 

That’s why up until now, sending people beyond the Moon is still largely unsolved.

One of the solutions to bypass the issues with this is space hibernation. When put into a sleep-like state called torpor, humans can lower their metabolism and sleep while waiting to complete their journey.

The concept has intrigued scientists so much that researchers from the European Space Agency conducted a feasibility study. Their findings? Some scientific hurdles make space hibernation out of reach for humans. 

Can we put humans to sleep in space?

Induced hibernation is something sci-fi geeks are familiar with. But details on how to go about it often remain unclear. Thankfully, Roberto F. Nespolo and Carlos Mejias have found new data on the possibility of humans saving energy while sleeping.

The two examined the relationship between body mass and the amount of energy used by animals hibernate. Their research found a minimum level of metabolism that enables cells to continue living in low-oxygen environments. 

Small animals like ground squirrels and bats have an easier time conserving their energy. Critters like these burn more than 25 percent of their body weight during their sleeping period. However, the math doesn’t work the same for humans and even bears.

Using statistical analysis, the two were able to find that the daily energy expenditure of hibernating animals is more or less the same, regardless of their tissue mass. 

However, they found a point where hibernation does not make a huge difference in saving energy for more active and bigger mammals. In fact, they said that our total energy needs while hibernating aren’t all that different from when we are resting. 

According to their research, when the calculations are scaled to bigger mammals, hibernating does not save much energy. The two scientists revealed that our energy levels would be the same as when we were resting.

Bottom line

Astronaut hibernation is a concept that scientists have been looking into for years. But unless we figure out how to store more body fat and replenish energy reserves in our body, space hibernation will not happen just yet. Either we pack so much weight into our bodies, or we would routinely need to wake up and consume food to build up fat. 

If the goal is to survive a long slumber, the concept seems impossible. After all, dropping our heart rate and breathing while manipulating our metabolism might not give us the result we are looking for. Like bears, there is no guarantee that humans can achieve an actual torpor state.

For now, at least, we would have to keep our eyes open for other options.

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Startup Central

How Volar Alta automates inspections and logistic support through drones

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niharika kolte

Startups are darlings when it comes to marrying social impact with technology. And the best part is that young people are leading this amazing movement. The newest startup making waves in the industry is Volar Alta, which provides drone support for companies across various fields. 

In order to save time, energy, and manpower, the company is offering drones as tools to speed up quality checks. They also want to make drone delivery a reality in the future.

How did Volar Alta get its start? 

drone

Like many startup founders, Niharika Kolte did not start out dreaming of being an entrepreneur. In fact, she began her career as an analyst working at PWC and KPMG. During her stint, she began to think of more efficient ways to conduct inspections and do technical due diligence. According to Kolte, this is usually the most prolonged phase of a deal for a banker or analyst. 

She believes that this is because of the old-school way of conducting technical inspections. Most companies test their assets using a random sampling test. But this is a time-consuming and not wholly accurate method. That said, Kolte found the need to have a more efficient way – one that offers both time efficiency and accuracy.

This inspired Kolte to provide a drone-based solution for businesses. With Volar Alta, she hopes to create a more cost-effective way to conduct operations. Apart from this, their drones also lessen downtime and boost security. 

More work done for less time 

Drones, she found out, can reduce the time it takes to do asset inspections. Using a drone to make inspections means that it can be used across various industries. This includes agriculture, real estate, entertainment, energy, and more.

Drone-based inspections can also reduce climate impacts. Kolte said that their drones are compact and can conduct inspections on a large scale without many carbon emissions.

She explains that her solution can help some companies conduct internal inspections on their equipment, such as silos and cyclones. In this case, companies usually deploy people to find visual defects. This method means that cement plants have to be shut down and halted production. 

Kolte said that for 64 cyclones, it would take six days to erect scaffolding to reach the top and another 11 days to identify the problem. Other days would also be allotted to fix the defect.

Using drones, however, drastically cuts down the time it takes to get a visual of the cyclones. According to Kolte, Volar Alta finished inspecting 64 cyclones in three days. The company ended up saving eight days of shutdown time.

Apart from that, it can also potentially save lives. Drones can easily detect workers who live in close quarters, and a drone can even serve as first responders in a disaster event.

What’s next for Volar Alta?

Since the pandemic started, Volar Alta has made a massive pivot to security. They began using their product as a surveillance tool for quarantine zones in India. But today, Volar Alta focuses its business on internal asset inspections and drone-based logistics. 

Besides reducing the time for inspections, the startup’s goal is to become an Uber for drones. Volar Alta is looking to have their drones deliver four items while in the air. And while the company also does not make drones in-house yet, they have their tech prepared. They have already created an intelligent custom storage payload to get multiple deliveries done in a single flight. 

Volar Alta’s groundbreaking tech has received three grants from IIM, Nidhi Prayas Scheme, and The UK FCDO. Kolte reports that the company has grown ten times since it started.

In the future, Kolte hopes that drones in business can reach the mainstream.

And for other tech and startup stories, read more here at Owner’s Mag!

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